Hiroshi Tanahashi’s life story can now be told in this series of autobiographical interviews, available for the first time in English!
— Last time, we talked about Kazuchika Okada’s sendoff match at Differ Ariake which took place on January 3 2010. You were assaulted by Toru Yano afterward, ahead of your February 14 match in Ryogoku. You won the match against Yano, but post match, his response was to cut your hair.
Tanahashi: Right at the top; I looked like someone out of an old samurai movie (laughs). My feud with Yano really started to heat up during the first half of that year. When the booing against me started to simmer down, I was able to better establish myself as the face of Hontai by going against Yano.
— It was a clear-cut babyface vs heel situation.
Tanahashi: Right, and naturally the support of the crowd went to me during this feud. At that time Yano was quite violent, really wild compared to the comical guy he is now. Everything from his blonde hair to his glare, his expressions, and even his fighting style and comments backstage were intense. At the Osaka venue, he even cut the hair off one of the fans attending the show. Nowadays New Japan has more than one heel faction, but Yano’s presence back then was vital.
–He was the top heel.
Tanahashi: I was nowhere near the belt scene in 2010 but I think that I was still the center of attraction largely due to my feud with Yano. I got the (Tokyo Sports) MVP Award for 2009, saved up everything in 2010 for it to bear fruit in 2011.
— After the Ryogoku event, you were in the New Japan Cup in March, facing the debuting Strongman (Jon Anderson) in the first round at Korakuen on March 14..
Tanahashi: I was the gate keeper. The office was sending talent overseas, and people were coming to strike back (laughs). But that did kinda mean the office had faith in me, right?
–You’re a big body guy yourself, obviously, so what were your thoughts on Strongman?
Tanahashi: Back then, I was even more proud of my muscles than I am now, so I was fired up. Strongman though… that kind of body isn’t really what I would go for. He was a real archetypical muscle man type, but that means you’re not really built for dexterity or mat wrestling.
–You won the match with a small package.
Tanahashi: But I lost the muscle pose-off, so we’ll call it even. (laughs) What was great about Strongman was how positive the guy was. I think that’s why the fans were very receptive towards him. His tag team (Muscle Orchestra) with (Manabu) Nakanishi was a lot of fun.
–Your opponent for the second round was Tetsuya Naito. Due to traffic issues, the wrestlers’ bus was unable to make it on time to the show and it was quite an incident. You had arrived in Gifu early to heal up your right knee, so you had an impromptu talk show to fill time.
Tanahashi: That I did! I had to participate in the pre-match and the main event, so I felt like a jack-of-all-trades. El Samurai, who lived in Aichi, did a talk show before I took over. A unique evening for sure (laughs).
–Naito and Yujiro Takahashi had returned from excursion at Wrestle Kingdom. They fought against Team 3D (Brother Ray & Brother Devon) and Bad Intentions (Giant Bernard & Karl Anderson) in a three-way and became the very first tag-team to win both IWGP Junior and Heavyweight Tag Team Championships.
Tanahashi: Naito had all this confidence, and you could really feel how badly he wanted to show off everything he learnt overseas in that ring. Even though No Limit returned as a tag-team, they quickly emerged as singles guys, Naito especially. That’s important; the ‘tag team specialist’ label is a really hard one to shake otherwise.
– -On his return, Naito said he hoped to “stand at the top of both the singles and tag divisions”. Doubly so after he finally managed to face you in the ring, considering he was a fan of yours before he broke in.
Tanahashi: Ever since Naito entered the Dojo, he felt that his job was to take me down. My history with Naito runs long; he was actually watching my debut match (October 10, 1999 against Shinya Makabe) at Korakuen. I feel he’s been ignoring me lately though. It’s a little sad. (laughs)
-During the NJC second round, Naito was specifically targeting your knees, and finished the match with a Stardust Press securing his victory, but played down any idea of it being an upset backstage, referencing your knee injury.
Tanahashi: It was due to his confidence coming from the top rung of CMLL in Mexico, and he was in his physical prime. He was on a roll. I felt that my strongest image of 2010 was when I was struggling with my knee issues. That’s what I had to overcome, and then go all out through 2011.
-You actually teamed with No Limit as a trio in a winning effort against Anderson, Takashi Iizuka and Toru Yano at Korakuen on April 4. You got attacked after the match and No Limit joined CHAOS after that.
Tanahashi: Right? I sent him off, I welcomed him back, and then I got betrayed for it (laughs). Hey, at least it’s nice to know Hiroshi Tanahashi was at the center of Tetsuya Naito’s universe for all that time.